March 2, 2021
U.S. State Department envoy Zalmay Khalilzad faces a daunting task – persuading the Taliban not to launch an offensive against Western troops that are likely to stay beyond the withdrawal deadline set by the Doha pact. The reboot in talks with the Taliban comes as the insurgents vow to kill any U.S. forces that remain on the ground after May 1, while the Pentagon draws up plans to increase airstrikes in advance of an insurgent offensive.
The Biden administration has repeatedly claimed that the Taliban have violated the withdrawal agreement by failing to split from al-Qaeda. In addition, the U.S. is unimpressed with insurgent efforts to engage in intra-Afghan talks, which is also stipulated in the withdrawal agreement. As a result, White House aides are reportedly seriously considering delaying the withdrawal of troops indefinitely.
Delaying the withdrawal, in Taliban eyes, is tantamount to a declaration of war. Moreover, the U.S. has, for years, failed to force the Taliban to the negotiating table through military pressure.
To complicate matters even more, it appears Washington is gradually looking to add more strings to any eventual U.S. troop exit, which the Taliban are certainly unlikely to sign off on.
On February 28, for example, the U.S. State Department in announcing the renewal of talks with the Taliban underscored the importance of reaching a “durable political settlement and permanent and comprehensive ceasefire.” The Doha agreement does not call for a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire. The pact only requires that it be an “item on the agenda” of intra-Afghan talks.
Yet a ceasefire is also not enough for some within the Washington establishment, as insinuated in the congressionally-mandated Afghanistan Study Group (ASG) report released earlier in February. In addition to ensuring al-Qaeda does not use Afghanistan as a base for launching an attack on the United States, the ASG outlined other end states for “ensuring U.S. interests in Afghanistan over the long term.”
The U.S., according to the report, should leave behind “an independent, democratic, and sovereign Afghan state,” that is stable enough to govern and protect itself. The report also says it is critical for Afghanistan to protect “minorities, women’s rights, the democratic character of the state, and a free press.”
Here the U.S. faces the proverbial “slippery slope” once again. On October 7, 2001, the U.S. began its offensive campaign in Afghanistan that led to the quick toppling of the Taliban. However, that mission morphed into a counterinsurgency and nation-building exercise. Over the course of 19 years the U.S. spent more than $1 trillion – including $140 billion to rebuild Afghanistan – and lost more than 2,400 troops. The Afghan war continues to cost U.S. taxpayers about $50 billion annually.
It is easy in hindsight to see these were strategic mistakes in terms of the narrow interest in preventing al-Qaeda from launching future attacks. Stationing up to 100,000 troops in southern and eastern Afghanistan was likely not the most appropriate approach for defeating an acephalous global terrorist network, especially considering much of the planning of the 9/11 attacks took place in Hamburg, Germany.
Now we are supposed to believe that less than 10,000 NATO troops, including 2,500 Americans, will be sufficient to ensure an everlasting ceasefire and the establishment of a strong Western-style democratic state that can prevent itself from becoming a terrorist safe haven.
Even the al-Qaeda bogeyman narrative has become less convincing. The U.S. is still stuck in the same whack-a-mole mindset as it was after the 9/11 takedown. There are “opportunity costs” to consider, admittedly largely from a selfish American taxpayer perspective, and other risks of pouring a disproportionate amount of resources into one locale to fight a few hundred terrorists, a dilemma aptly captured by realist scholar Stephen Walt.
“If we [the United States] could somehow transform Afghanistan into a replica of Denmark overnight, it would not eliminate the dangers that might arise from other places,” Walt wrote in a February 23 Foreign Policy piece.
Nobody has really challenged the domino theory nightmare scenarios deriving from the Taliban continuing to hang out with al-Qaeda. For starters, as Walt also noted, does the billions of dollars’ worth of investment in homeland security mean nothing? Does the U.S. really believe al-Qaeda will orchestrate another 9/11? Seems about as likely as lighting striking twice.
U.S. Marine Corps Command and Staff College James Joyner captured the absurdity well, writing in 2019 about former defense officials opposing any sort of drawdown in Afghanistan.
“The notion that the return of Taliban control over Kabul would engender a global caliphate is more fanciful than Australia going communist in the wake of defeat in Indochina,” Joyner wrote in The National Interest.
Under Trump, Khalilzad was fighting to keep the arrangement as lean and vague as possible to ensure a swift exit. Now, the special envoy may find himself working to expand and put more teeth into it – which is certainly doable on paper. Enforceability, however, is an entirely different question.